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Did Russia block Mitt Romney from becoming secretary of state?

In a lengthy profile in The New Yorker of Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence officer and author of the infamous pee tape dossier, Jane Mayer reports that Steele wrote a second memo shortly after the 2016 election, and that he is believed to have discussed it with special counsel Robert Mueller. That memo reportedly featured a single “senior Russian official” who told Steele that there was chatter within Russia’s foreign ministry that Russia had effectively blocked Mitt Romney’s appointment as Secretary of State.

The official said that he was merely relaying talk circulating in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but what he’d heard was astonishing: people were saying that the Kremlin had intervened to block Trump’s initial choice for Secretary of State, Mitt Romney. (During Romney’s run for the White House in 2012, he was notably hawkish on Russia, calling it the single greatest threat to the U.S.) The memo said that the Kremlin, through unspecified channels, had asked Trump to appoint someone who would be prepared to lift Ukraine-related sanctions, and who would coöperate on security issues of interest to Russia, such as the conflict in Syria. If what the source heard was true, then a foreign power was exercising pivotal influence over U.S. foreign policy—and an incoming President.

This is arguably more explosive than anything in the initial Steele dossier, which was made public in January of 2017 by BuzzFeed. That dossier suggested that Russia had a great deal of compromising material on Donald Trump, that it had cultivated him, and that it had aided his candidacy, possibly in exchange for the lifting of sanctions that had been placed after its annexation of Crimea. The second memo, however, suggests that Russia had actually done something with the leverage it purportedly had over Trump: It had blocked the appointment of a secretary of state who had made a hawkish stance on Russia one of his key policy positions when he ran for president in 2012. Rex Tillerson, who was eventually named secretary of state, was awarded the Order of Friendship by Vladimir Putin in 2013.

There are, of course, many grains of salt in this story. Much of the Steele dossier remains unverified and some of its claims have been revealed to be inaccurate or worse. Also, it’s not entirely clear how serious Romney’s candidacy was—Trump’s flirtation with Romney felt more like a power play than vetting. But if there is a link between Russia and Trump’s decision not to offer the job of secretary of state to Romney, that would be explosive: direct evidence of Russian influence over the American president.